May 27, 2014

Still alive


Jesus’ Son (Alison Maclean, 1999). Dundun. When I first saw Alison Maclean’s film Jesus’ Son back in 2000, I didn’t know to watch for Michael Shannon (billed then as “Mike”) as Dundun, who makes only a brief but important appearance – important enough to have had a chapter named for him in the book by Denis Johnson. Dundun is an example of those who have been messed up or ruined by the times – the early 70s, the Midwest – and all the drugs; Johnson’s famous closing line about Dundun is that “certain important connections had been burned through”, and “if I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that”. Shannon gives you all that in a look. There are drug casualties and overdoses scattered throughout the first two-thirds of both the book and the movie, before the turning point which Maclean, adapting a screenplay credited to Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman, grasps by picking out a handful of key lines and images from Johnson’s minimal and poetic stories and repeating the opening car crash, now as a rescue or an important human gesture. The cold light of the ruined downtowns of Midwestern cities starts to give way to the warmer light of Phoenix, Arizona, as a match to the fairly overt redemption narrative: no wonder it got an award from the Catholic church at Venice. Maclean’s film is almost entirely faithful to story and even to feeling – the sorrow, the semi-religious awe, the druggie comedy – but still it never quite gets to the deep, moving and strangely private effect of Johnson’s writing. Example: the film sets Michelle’s (Samantha Morton) suicidal overdose during her time with Fuckhead (Billy Crudup, suitably naïve, childlike, charming, inept) but Johnson has her dying after she had left him for a man named John Smith. Both ways of telling it have their advantages. In Maclean’s version, Fuckhead has more guilt to seek redemption from, the overdose drama is put onscreen, the death is another step in a volatile romantic story that Maclean emphasises and his failure to revive her contrasts with her successful rescue of him earlier, when he overdoses (changed again, slightly, from the ending of “Out on Bail”), but isn’t it sadder in the book, where all that time and loss is sketched in just a few words? “For many weeks after she died, John Smith confided to people that Michelle was calling to him from the other side of life. She wooed him. She made herself more real than any of the visible people around him, the people who were still breathing, who were supposed to be alive. When I heard, shortly after that, that John Smith was dead, I wasn’t surprised.”